The Ultimate Guide to Planning for NaNoWriMo

Happy #Preptober everyone! 🎃👻

I love this time of year. You get to dress in cozy layers, drink hot tea and coffee all day, decorate for Halloween, and consume all things pumpkin spice and cinnamon! 

But besides all that, it's also a month of intense preparation for any writer who's planning to participate in NaNoWriMo.


What is NaNoWriMo?

NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. It’s a worldwide write-a-thon that occurs every year during the month of November. 

On November 1st, participants start working towards the goal of writing 50,000 words by 11:59 pm on November 30th. That might sound crazy, but it’s a pretty popular event in the #writingcommunity. 

Thankfully, there’s still PLENTY of time to prepare!


Why do you need to plan for NaNoWriMo?

The first few times I attempted to write a novel during NaNoWriMo I crashed and burned miserably. I did a lot of things wrong, but the main one was not planning and outlining my story before NaNoWriMo started. 

I thought that having a good imagination and some ideas for a story meant I could show up on day one and successfully write a 50,000-word draft in 30-days. Long story short, I “failed” NaNoWriMo — and it didn’t feel good AT ALL.

And that's why I wrote this guide to NaNoWriMo planning — so you could avoid the mistakes I made and "win" NaNoWriMo. 

To set you up for success, I'm going to walk you through the first 10 steps to take BEFORE embarking on your month-long NaNoWriMo adventure. My hope is that you’ll not only “win” NaNoWriMo but that you'll also walk away with a finished first draft of your story.

The best part? You can use everything you learn in this series to plan and outline ANY book you write, whether it’s during NaNoWriMo or not. Let's dive in!

Step 1: Find Your Story Idea

The first thing you need to do to get ready for NaNoWriMo is to pick a story idea to work with. Maybe you already have an idea that’s been floating around in your head, but maybe you don’t. Here are a few ways to get your creative juices flowing and come up with a bunch of story ideas.

  • Search for “Writing Prompts” online. Sometimes the best cure for a lack of ideas is to let someone else jumpstart your imagination for you. Do a search on Google or Pinterest for “Writing Prompts” and you’ll find a ton of inspiration!
  • Consider your life, dreams, and memories. Did something interesting happen in your past that you want to explore through your writing? Is there some life event that you want to write an alternate ending to? Did you have a strange (but cool) dream last night?
  • Ask questions about the world around you. What if things were different in the world? What would life look like and how would things work? How would your life be impacted?
  • Check out recent news stories or historical events. Almost any event, past or present, can be recreated in fiction regardless of the world or time period in which your story takes place. The goal is to give yourself a starting point and let your imagination run wild. 
  • Think about your favorite stories. This one is my favorite. Pick five or so of your favorite books, movies, or TV shows and think about what you love about them. You’ll probably start to notice patterns about the story elements or types of characters you like the most. For example, say your list is full of stories that take place during the Regency period. That might indicate that you'd have fun writing a story during that time period, too.

👉 Recommended Reading: How to Choose Which Story Idea to Write Next


Step 2: Test Your Story Idea

I think we can all agree that there’s nothing worse than wasting time on an idea that’s going nowhere. So, once you’ve come up with an idea you like, it’s time to test it out (or flesh it out!) with these two exercises:

Exercise #1: Write your story’s logline. 

A logline is a short summary that gives the gist of your book in 1-2 sentences. It includes who the main character is, what the conflict is, and what’s at stake. It’s the WHO, WHERE, WHAT, and WHY of your story, (but not the HOW). For inspiration and examples, look up your favorite movies on and check out the 1-2 sentence summary they provide.

Exercise #2: Write your story’s pitch. 

A pitch is a longer summary of your story (usually, 250 words or less) that expands upon your logline but does not give away the ending of the story. When writing your pitch, you’ll want to answer these questions: Who is your protagonist and what does he or she want? Who or what is standing in your protagonist’s way? What is the conflict? Where does the story take place? What happens if your protagonist fails to achieve their goal? What’s at stake? For inspiration and examples, look up your favorite books on Amazon and check out the summary that describes what each book is about.

Once you finish writing your logline and pitch, ask yourself — does this story sound interesting to me? If not, re-write your logline and pitch to focus on the most interesting parts of your story or pick a different idea to work with.

👉 Recommended Reading: How to Test Your Story Idea Before You Start Writing


Step 3: Choose ONE Global Genre

When you hear the word “genre,” you might think of the shelves in a bookstore or the categories on Amazon. But, genre is more than just a way to sort and classify stories according to their shared elements. 

Genre can also provide writers with a blueprint or roadmap for writing a story that works. Plus, when you understand your genre, you’ll have a much better idea of how to write a story that delivers on readers’ expectations.

External vs. Internal Genres

A story will either have an external genre, an internal genre, or both.

Plot-driven stories make up the external genres and are primarily driven by outer conflict. The external genres are — action, horror, mystery, performance, romance, society, thrillers, war, and westerns.

Character-driven stories make up the internal genres and are primarily driven by inner conflict. The internal genres are — worldview, status, and morality.

Stories can contain BOTH an external and an internal genre, but they don’t have to. If you decide to include both an internal and external genre in your story, you must choose ONE to be the main genre. If you don’t, you won’t know what to focus on as you write. 

👉 Recommended Reading: Understanding Genre: How to Write Better Stories.


Step 4: Uncover the Theme of Your Story

Theme is the overall message you want readers to take away from your story. It's a way for you to make a point about something you feel passionately about.

To uncover the theme of your story, consider what you have to say about life, love, the world, or human nature. What topics or causes do you feel strongly about?

Check out these universal themes for inspiration:

  • Forgiveness (of self or others)
  • Love (self-love, family love, romantic love)
  • Acceptance (of self, of circumstances, of reality)
  • Faith (in oneself, in others, in the world, in God)
  • Fear (overcoming it, conquering it, finding courage)
  • Trust (in oneself, in others, in the unknown)
  • Survival (including the will to live)
  • Selflessness (including selflessness, altruism, heroism, and overcoming greed)
  • Responsibility (including duty, standing up for a cause, accepting one’s destiny)
  • Redemption (including atonement, accepting blame, remorse, and salvation)

If you can identify any of these universal themes in your story, ask yourself—What am I trying to say about this topic? What does this topic mean to me? Knowing what you're trying to say before you start writing will go a long way when it comes to writing a story that works.

👉 Recommended Reading: 3 Questions to Help You Uncover the Theme of Your Story


Step 5: Get to Know Your Protagonist

Stories are all about change. Mainly how the external plot events affect your protagonist in such a way that he or she must change internally to achieve their story goals.

To figure out your character’s arc (or how they will change throughout your story) start by asking these questions:

  1. What does he or she want? What micro-goals will help him or her get this?
  2. Why does he or she want this? What’s motivating them? What will success or failure mean to him or her? What’s at stake?
  3. Why can’t he or she have this? What false belief is standing in his or her way on the inside? Who or what is standing in their way in the outside world?
  4. What epiphany will he or she have by the end of the story? What will he or she learn? How will he or she change from the beginning of the story to the end of the story?
  5. What does he or she value? (“Nothing is more important than…”)

A lot of the time, your character’s objects of desire will be determined by the genre you’re writing in. For example, in a thriller (external genre), the protagonist’s conscious object of desire (or what he wants) is to stop the villain and save the victim’s life. 

If this thriller had an internal morality genre, we’d eventually learn why it was so important for him to save the victim in the first place. Maybe his subconscious object of desire (or what he needs) is to overcome some kind of moral failing in his past.

👉 Recommended Reading: 5 Questions to Help You Write Compelling Characters


Step 6: Pick Your POV and Tense

Point of view (or POV) is the “lens” through which your story is told. You need to make a deliberate choice about POV because each option can affect the reader in a different way. Some things to consider while choosing the POV for your story are:

  • Whose eyes do you want the reader to experience the story through?
  • Whose voice do you want the reader to hear as they read the story? 
  • Will you have multiple narrators or just one?

Once you know WHO is telling your story, you have to figure out HOW they’ll tell the story. In fiction there are three main options to choose from:

  • First Person: “I” am telling the story.
  • Second Person: The story is told to “you.”
  • Third Person: The story is about “he” or “she.”

If you can't make a decision, look to the genre of your story for guidance. Choose 3-5 books in your genre and see what POV they write in. You can also consider what point-of-view feels the most natural for you to write in -- sometimes that's the best answer. 

After that, you’ll need to choose your tense. Will you write in the past tense or present tense? If you’re not sure, look to your genre for help. If you’re really not sure, go with past tense -- it’s the most common tense in modern fiction.

👉 Recommended Reading: Everything You Need to Know About Point of View


Step 7: Develop Your Story's Setting

Setting is not just WHERE your story takes place — it’s also the WHEN. So, first, you need to determine when your story takes place — the past, present, or future?

Then, you can drill down to WHERE your story takes place. Look at what you already know about your characters and your story idea. For example, if you know your protagonist works with horses, your setting might be a ranch or a farm.

If you’re writing a novel that takes place in an imaginary world, you’ll need to do some world-building. Here's a list of questions to help you build the preliminary version of your story's world. 

World-Building Questions:

  1. Does your story take place in our universe or in an alternate universe?
  2. What’s the cosmology of your world like? Is there oxygen and gravity in your world? 
  3. What’s the geography of your world like? How does it impact people?
  4. What’s the history of your world? How did it come to be?
  5. Does magic exist in your world? How do people get magic? What rules govern magic? 
  6. What is the nature of technology in your world? What impact does it have on society?
  7. Are people happy and content in your world? Or are they traumatized and rebellious?
  8. What is transportation like? How do people get around? 
  9. What is the food like? How is it produced, distributed, controlled? 
  10. What’s the role of money in your world? How is it acquired and spent?
  11. Is there a dominant religion in your world? What role does religion play in the world?
  12. Who holds power and why? What’s the role of government in your world?
  13. How do people communicate? Is there a dominant language? 
  14. What do people do for work or school? 
  15. What do people do for fun in your world? What role do the arts or sports play?

Regardless of whether your story takes place in a real or made-up word, your setting’s role is to provide context for the central story. It’s not something you should spend a ton of time on — especially upfront, but it’s definitely something to consider during these early stages. 


Step 8: Write a Synopsis of Your Story

Now it’s time to expand on the short summaries you made in step 2 and write a longer synopsis of your story. Here’s a quick overview of how to write a synopsis:

  1. Tell the story of your main characters. Generally speaking, you’ll write the synopsis with the main character as the focus. You’ll want to include what he or she wants, what’s motivating him or her, and what’s at stake. 
  2. Explain the core conflict for your protagonist. Who is your protagonist up against? What’s getting in his or her way? Does your protagonist succeed or fail in dealing with the conflict? This should be the longest section of your synopsis. 
  3. Finally, show how the central conflict is resolved. How has your protagonist changed internally since the beginning of the story? What has changed externally? 

Aim for 1-3 page (approximately 500-1,000 words) double-spaced. If you go much longer than this, you risk getting stuck in the weeds. The goal is to remain “high-level” here.

You want to capture the beginning, middle, and end of your story focusing on the primary plot thread. You won’t be able to mention every character or event. And you definitely won’t be able to summarize every scene or chapter. That’s okay (and kind of the point)!


Step 9: Create Your Big Picture Scene Outline

Grab some index cards, post-it notes, or a notebook because I’m going to show you how to break your story down using (gasp!) math. If you’re using index cards or post-it notes, then each index card or post-it note will represent one scene. 

Since we know the goal of NaNoWriMo is to write 50,000-words in 30-days, that means you can break your story down like this:

  • Act 1 (the beginning) – represents 25% of your story.
    • That means Act 1 of your story will be around 12,500 words (or about 10 scenes)
  • Act 2 (the middle) – represents 50% of your story.
    • That means Act 2 of your story will be around 25,000 words (or about 20 scenes)
  • Act 3 (the ending) – represents 25% of your story.
    • That means Act 3 of your story will be around 12,500 words (or about 10 scenes)

Breaking your story down into these three smaller parts will make the planning and outlining process much easier. But guess what? You can break it down even further using the key story moments that occur within each section. 

👉 Recommended Reading: Where Should Your Story Start and End?


Step 10: Brainstorm Your Story's Key Moments

Within each act, there are key story moments that help you create and show change throughout your story. Not only that, but these key moments also help you to properly pace your story and create a sense of narrative drive.

In this example, I’m going to assume you have 40 scenes. In that case, you could plan each scene to be around 1,250 words. Take a look…

Act 1 (the beginning) – about 10 scenes

  • Hook (1% mark or scene #1) – This is your first opportunity to grab the reader’s attention and make them wonder what’s going to happen next. 
  • Inciting Incident (12% mark or scene #5) – This is an event that upsets the balance of your protagonist’s world and gives rise to their objects of desire. 
  • First Plot Point (25% mark or scene #10) – This is when the events of the story get personal. Something or someone allows or forces your protagonist to commit wholeheartedly to the journey ahead.

Act 2 (the middle) – about 20 scenes

  • First Pinch Point (37% mark or scene #15) – This applies pressure to the protagonist and reminds them who the antagonist is and what’s at stake.
  • Midpoint (50% mark or scene #20) – This is your protagonist’s "moment of truth." Somehow he or she finally realizes the true nature of the antagonist’s actions or intent. It’s also the moment your protagonist shifts from "reactive mode" to "proactive mode."
  • Second Pinch Point (62% mark or scene #25) – This another moment of applied pressure. The goal is to remind your protagonist what they still have to conquer, overcome, or accomplish in order to achieve their story goal.
  • Second Plot Point (75% mark or scene #30) – This is the final injection of new information into the story. The threat from the antagonist worsens, the stakes are raised again, the danger gets even more real, and emotions are at an all-time high. It usually includes or leads to an "all is lost" moment.

Act 3 (the ending) – about 10 scenes

  • Crisis (88% mark or scene #35) – This is a decision your protagonist needs to make between taking one action or another. It's a decision that serves as a last-ditch effort to achieve their story goal.
  • Climax (90% mark or scene #35/36*) – This shows the outcome of the choice the character made during the Crisis. It’s the moment where your protagonist finally faces the antagonist. It’s also the moment where your story’s meaning is bestowed upon the audience. *Usually, the Climax directly follows the Crisis, but not always.
  • Resolution (or the last scene/s) – This is the final scene (or scenes) of your story. You'll want to show what life is like now that your protagonist has achieved (or has not achieved) their story goal.

Once you figure out those key story moments, you can ask yourself what happens before and after each key scene. For example, after your story’s hook, what happens to lead up to or cause the Inciting Incident? What happens as a result of your Inciting Incident and how does that lead up to or cause the First Plot Point?

The goal here is to create a CAUSE and EFFECT trajectory from scene to scene. In other words, every scene should be related to and have a direct impact on what happens next. This is how you develop the kind of narrative drive that makes readers turn page after page to find out what happens next.

Final Thoughts

Whew! That was a lot! If you made it to the end of this post, thanks for sticking with me! 

My hope is that after going through these 10 steps, you’ll have a strong for your story and the ability to start NaNoWriMo with confidence.

But there's one more thing I want you to consider before you go...

Writing 50,000 words in a month means you’ll have to write an average of 1,667 words per day. So, do you have a plan in place for getting those words written?

Have you blocked out time in your calendar yet? What activities can you give up to make more time for your writing? Where will you do the work so you won’t be interrupted? 

If you’re not able to write every day, take the time now to figure out how you’re going to compensate for the days you can’t write and put it on your calendar. 

If you feel like you need external support to achieve your NaNoWriMo goals, you can:

  • Find an accountability partner. This can be a friend, family member, or fellow NaNo-participant. In the Regional Lounge of the NaNoWriMo forums, you can connect with other writers in your area and try for some in-person meet-ups. 
  • Enlist the help of a book coach. A book coach can give you all the support of an accountability partner while helping you craft a story from start to finish. Not only that, but you’ll also learn how to become a better writer in the process! Learn more about my book coaching programs here.

If you do participate in NaNoWriMo this year, I wish you THE BEST OF LUCK! And if you used the exercises in this article to prep for NaNoWriMo, please come back and let me know how you did this year. I’d love to give you a shout-out on social media if you “win!”

The Ultimate Guide to NaNoWriMo Planning: 10 Steps to Help You Prep for NaNoWriMo Success (Free Checklist Included!) | Savannah Gilbo - Not sure how to start writing a book? Learn how to write a book in 30 days with this 10-step NaNoWriMo planning guide! #amwriting #writingtips #writingcommunity 

👉 Let’s discuss in the comments: Are you participating in NaNoWriMo this year? Have you ever written a novel in 30-days? Which parts did you find challenging? What are your tips for success? Let me know in the comments below!

Savannah is a developmental editor and book coach who helps fiction authors write, edit, and publish stories that work. She also hosts the top-rated Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast full of actionable advice that you can put into practice right away. Click here to learn more →